Traumatic memories, which can also lead to PTSD, cause millions of people problems in their daily lives every year. Some people have lived with the symptoms caused by trauma for years and are often told that there is nothing that can be done to help. However, it can be helpful to have an understanding of what constitutes  traumatic memories. And to find out how they happen, what the symptoms are, and what can be done to help you process them.

In this article we look at the way memory is stored in our brains, the way trauma is formed and the methods that we use to help people to deal with them that allow them to move past the event.  

 

Memories & Patterns

 

Our brains hold vast amounts of information. Everything you have experienced, learnt, seen or read is stored in your brain. Much of it is buried in your long-term memory and you will probably not even know it is in there. The brain stores information via patterns and it will use these patterns to keep you safe. As we learn new information it will rewrite and update the patterns. 

A memory is stored initially by receiving the sensory information. This information is passed to the thalamus for processing. The amygdala, the brain’s ‘security officer’, assesses the situation for dangers before the information goes to the hippocampus for long term storage.

When a traumatic event occurs, the emotional reaction can be so strong that it remains in the amygdala. The strength of the emotional reaction forces the amygdala to retain the information in coded form, and it will be a kind of snapshot of the whole event. Here the memory can be easily retrieved in case it is suddenly needed again in a similar future emergency. The memory can be reactivated by something in the environment that recalls the traumatic moment, for example a sound, smell or object.

 

Example of Memory forming

 

When you were a small child, you may have gone to touch a hot cup of coffee. Your parent may have stopped you and told you it was dangerous. You brain stores the situation as something to avoid. It remembers the smell of coffee, the steam from the cup, the concerned look of your parent. You have now learnt not to touch hot cups. As you get older you may start to drink coffee. You learn to separate the danger of touching boiling water from the act of drinking the coffee itself. 

However, if as a child you had actually burnt yourself with the hot coffee, the memory may become traumatic. The brain tries to defend you, it doesn’t want you to get hurt again. It leaves the memory in a place that is easy to retrieve. When you try and do the same action your brain will remind you of the pain and warn you. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t always store things in a way that seems logical. In the above example. as part of the snapshot, there may have been some music playing in the background when you burnt yourself. The trauma memory may be linked to that song. As you grow up you forget some of the details. You have no idea why every time you hear a certain song you feel trepidation or pain. 

 

Traumatic memories

 

What constitutes a trauma memory is different for everyone. Two people may have been in the same car accident. One could have no trauma but the other suffers with PTSD and has flashbacks of the event. There is no algorithm to predict what will cause a traumatic memory or who will suffer with traumatic memories. 

One commonality in all PTSD and trauma cases we see, is the presence of a strong emotional reaction to the event. Our brain attaches this emotion to the situation and stores the information in the amygdala. This is our security system; it is constantly scanning our environment for threats. It does this by pattern matching what we know and overlaying our current environment to identify potential dangers. If there is a match, the amygdala triggers the sympathetic nervous system. It is this system that allows your body to react to the danger, for example fight, flight or freeze. 

Traumatic memories often do not fade and as time goes by, they can even become worse. These memories are usually embedded in the brain as a ‘survival template’. If they are not treated, they may continue to invoke strong emotional reactions. They can also be dormant, and then something can happen that the brain recognises and triggers a past trauma pattern that then starts causing panic and anxiety. 

 
Everyone is different 

 

There are no strengths or weaknesses associated with how we process trauma. We are all different and our brains process information differently. Events which we have seen to cause trauma memories are usually distressing and have a negative impact on our lives. Common examples are physical injuries, illnesses childhood abuse, sexual assaults, bullying, severe panic attacks, car crashes and war zone incidents. You could suffer a trauma response to witnessing event or even just hearing about an event. 

Also, there is a strong connection between how well our emotional needs are being met and our resilience to trauma. We are much more vulnerable when our needs are not met well. 

 

 

PTSD and Trauma Symptoms

 

 

You may have suffered a potentially traumatic experience but are able to effectively deal with it. If you are suffering from trauma, some common symptoms are:

  • Nightmares
  • Intrusive re-occurring memories
  • Sudden outbursts of anger
  • Panic attacks
  • Depression
  • Feeling numb
  • Difficulty expressing emotions
  • Overreaction to sudden noises
  • Intense flashbacks

You may find you are even hallucinating the event again and again as if it were happening now. You may have a deep-seated belief that you will not live to old age. Traumatic memories usually still feel very fresh even years after the event. This is because they are frequently being brought into the mind by being triggered off frequently.

 

Treatment of traumatic memories 

 

 

PTSD and traumatic memories can be successfully treated very successfully.  The process we use as therapists helps the amygdala learn to process the memory without invoking the sympathetic nervous system. We will often use a guided imagery technique. This allows the brain to revisit the traumatic events in a dissociated way while being physically calm. The amygdala can reinterpret the memory patterns as non-threatening. You will still be able to remember the incident but it will not invoke such strong emotional attachment.

The techniques that we use are safe and designed not to be distressing. They are highly effective and do not require us to know all the sensitive details. There is no need for you to describe the event in any great detail (unless you would like to, some people find it is helpful to talk about it). Talking therapies can help in the short term by helping you come to terms with the emotion surrounding the situation. However, unless the pattern has been dealt with it will still fire off when the brain recognises it and feels you are in danger. 

This process works because the brain is processing the trauma at the same time as it is processing current reality. The experience will have a non-threatening context, even though it was threatening in the past. This is similar to when we have experienced a nightmare. Once we wake up safe in bed, the dream is no longer frightening. 

 

Using The Rewind Technique for traumatic memories

 

 

One of the techniques we use to treat trauma and anxiety is called the rewind technique. 

This process involves: you being put into a state of deep relaxation, and if not already evident you will be encouraged to feel the emotion generated by the event. The technique, which involves being dissociated from the event and repeatedly going backwards and forwards through it at speed, gradually lessens the emotion felt until the memory pattern is desensitised. 

Once the trauma memory has been desensitised, we can then help you with any additional follow up work. For example, you may need support with anger resolution or building self esteem and confidence. Our therapy will help you develop life skills to support you long term. We will always aim to do this in as few as sessions as possible. 

For more information contact us through our website or the contact form below. If you know of someone who would benefit from reading about this, then please share. 

With warmest wishes, 

Russ 

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